“You can’t chew bubble gum.” That’s the most common response I get when I tell people I’m attending Singapore Audio Show, known as the International Sound & Sight Exhibition. On occasions, they may add “no jaywalking” or “caning” into the stereotyping. To Singaporeans, these stereotypes are actually a good thing because it keeps the outside world fixated on irrelevant issues while Singapore stays quietly off the radar while they “eat everybody’s lunches.”
Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding Prime Minister, always insisted that the proof is in the pudding: rising incomes for the broad middle class, health, security, economic opportunity. Indeed, there’s a lot of proof found in Singapore’s pudding. In three short years, Singapore’s GDP per capita grew nearly 40% to $76,000 USD in 2022. To put it into perspective, the USA’s GDP per capita is $69,000, Switzerland $72,000, Canada $44,500, and Hong Kong at $49,600 (all in USD). Whether Hongkongers admit it or not, it is quite obvious that Singapore has firmly stolen the title “The Pearl of the East ” from them.
Words and Photos from Richard H. Mak
In 2021, Singapore saw a record $448 billion inflow of new money into the city. That figure is expected to be even higher in 2022. That’s nearly $100,000 per capita into a city with a population of just under 5.5 million. Singaporeans are swimming in cash and are in an economic boom while the rest of the world teeters towards recession.
Singapore also has some of the best food in the world whether your metric is total number of Michelin star restaurants or accessible local delights. Singapore far outstrips any other country on earth when it comes to cuisine variety and quality. The city ranks amongst the highest in the world in terms of number and density of of Michelin Star restaurants, with a total of 52 in just 227 square miles. Furthermore, you can find some of the best street food amongst the hundreds of Hawker Centers (food courts) spread out all over Singapore and you can eat to your heart’s content at just $5 to $10 dollars per dish.
Turning back to the International Sound & Sight Exhibition, what about high-end audio in Singapore? The city’s Adelphi shopping center is the mecca of audio. Here, you can find 95% of the world’s audio names all housed in one building.
Besides food and finances, everything seems to function well in this city. From healthcare to transportation to income equality to education to shopping, everything is efficient and of high quality. Singapore is a true multicultural society and its people are friendly, polite and respectful.
Hey! You still can’t chew gum! Well in Zurich, you’re not allowed to have an air conditioner. You can’t mow the lawn, you can’t flush the toilet past 10 pm, you need to pay tax on your dog, and when you want a gerbil you need to buy two because buying just one is not allowed. You read it correctly, that’s Switzerland, not Singapore. And contrary to popular belief, you can actually chew gum in Singapore, you just cannot sell it. I don’t really chew gum, I don’t steal, I don’t rape, I don’t litter, I don’t budge the line, and I don’t piss in the elevator. So as a law-abiding citizen I appreciate the high standards, because I don’t see why we shouldn’t be tough on vandals, thieves, rapists, and drug traffickers. And I quote Calvin Cheng’s article published in the Independent:
“Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish.”
But enough with the buttering-up already, let’s move onto the real topic at hand, the 2022 Singapore Audio Show, the International Sound & Sight Expo.
International Sound & Sight Exhibition: The Good
The International Sound & Sight Exhibition was held at the Holiday Inn hotel near Orchard Road from December 2nd to the 4th. Orchard Road is the heart of Singapore’s primary shopping district. Think of it as the Fifth Ave of New York, or the Ginza of Tokyo – right where the action is.
Singapore certainly has the capacity to handle a show as big as the CES if it wants to, it heralds the best airport and subway system in the world. Every high-end audio manufacturer on earth knows that Asia will soon be the biggest market for their wares, if not already, and Singapore is that doorway into southeast Asia.
Given this is the first time ever for a western media source to cover the International Sound & Sight Exhibition, I was greeted warmly by Mr. Tham Chaik Kong (Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the Singapore based Sound and Sight Journal audiophile publication) at the hotel’s entrance. Mr. Tham is an industry veteran and a pillar of the audio community, and he started Sound and Sight Journal (in the Chinese language) in 1992 and has been running the audio show since 1999, interrupted only by the two COVID years.
This year’s International Sound & Sight Exhibition is smaller than usual, with a total of approximately 25 rooms spread evenly on half of the 8th floor, and the basement level of the hotel. Before COVID, the show used to boast 45-50 rooms, and that number is expected to come back in 2023. Visitor count, however, tops out at nearly 5000 people, exceeding the TAVES show in Toronto, or the Salon Audio Montreal show, both of which occupy a much larger footprint. As a freelance writer, I actually prefer the intimacy of a small show rather than the all-out assault of CES, Munich or AXPONA. Since I was able to spend plenty of time listening to each and every one of the 25 systems over a three-day period, real listening experiences were registering deeply in my head.
Unlike the CES or AXPONA, you won’t see two or three big name speakers dominating 30% of the rooms, or a dedicated room for one brand of cables with long winded lectures. International Sound & Sight Exhibition is entirely dominated by local brick and mortar audio shops rather than big name manufacturers. They often wear the hat of both the distributor and the dealer. You can see the enthusiasm and feel the pulse of the shop owners, because to them the show is not a half-vacation in another town or country, paid for by a corporate manufacturer employer. It is pure bread and butter for the actual store owners without corporate sponsors footing the bill. Many started out as simple audiophiles just like you and me.
The Bad & The Ugly (and this has nothing to do with Singapore)
Judging by the headcount and the enthusiasm of the patrons, the International Sound & Sight Exhibition is an obvious success. But beneath the surface, we are beginning to see the same trends which are developing in North America and Europe.
The first is the frightening demographic change, or the absence thereof. I can’t help but to notice the complete absence of young people at the International Sound & Sight Exhibition, very much like the shows in North America. I saw maybe two persons under the age of 40, and if I had to guess, I would say the average age of the attendee ranges between 55 to 60. The handwriting is on the wall, if the audio industry chooses to ignore this alarming development, the long-term viability of this industry needs to be questioned. How can an entire age segment of society be completely absent?
Could the ever increasing out of control upward spiral of the MSRP be the cause of our own demise? I asked my daughter about high end audio, and she blatantly said “How can anyone of us afford this stuff?” I entered this hobby when I was 12 back in Hong Kong. Looking back, I had many audiophile peers and prices were no where near what they are today, even after inflation.
In the post COVID 2022, the already stratospheric numbers went to absolutely insane levels. I was quite taken back by the fact that I cannot assemble a decent setup with less than $100,000, and we’re not even talking “High End.” So many manufacturers want to have a statement model at insane pricing to establish a marketing position. It’s like the first to reach a million-dollar MSRP wins. (This is a broad stroke generalized phenomenon not without exceptions.) Some manufacturer’s prices remain reasonable, but the ones who have entered the MSRP race can easily be spotted.
Establishing a “premium” marketing position is not a sin; we see this with Hermès, Pétrus or Bentley. But “premium” names have three things in common – they have a long history of stable and appreciative price structure, an expanding customer base over time, and a supportive resale market. With the audio industry, we are seeing manufacturers who used to make $50,000 amplifiers suddenly re-emerging after COVID only to increase their MSRP by two- and three-fold en masse. Now they’re selling $100k to $200k amplifiers to a rapidly shrinking customer base. However, many of these products are being sold at 40% off already at the dealer level, only to see them re-emerge on Audiogon, Review33 or US Audiomart just a year later at 70% off MSRP. This is highly indicative of a failed marketing strategy, and it’s telling you the real MSRP is the 70% off price.
No pun intended, but I saw many $5,000 plus power bars, and $50,000 cables, and they still want 10% more in 2023. Many of these names peddle with pseudo-science or outlandish snake oil claims, disguising themselves as scientific innovation. No, Elon Musk has real innovations, and I find it hard to justify a $50,000 cable or a $550,000 system if a Tesla, with all its innovation, is just selling for $46k. A big MSRP does not legitimize their claims.
Nearly all the systems in the big rooms at the International Sound & Sight Exhibition are over $750,000. Think about this, Singapore is already one of the richest countries in the world, but no young person can afford a $250,000 system or even a $2,500 one unless you belong to the top 0.1% of the population. If the industry continues down this silly MSRP spiral, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s coming. Do you know what’s coming? Japan’s economic stagnation of 20 yrs is coming when you have no young people to enter the demand equation, and your only customer base are the few newly minted billionaires sitting on their yachts trying to outspend their friends. You simply can’t keep increasing prices to make up for the lost volume.
Perhaps we need to ask why SONOS is a $2 billion company, and revenues are $1.75 billion. Maybe it is because young people can afford their products, and they chose not to position themselves with this “$500k whatever targeting five people” silliness. It is easy to fall into the temptation of marketing to 5 billionaire suckers versus 3000 real customers, but if we want our grandchildren to have hi-fi, the industry needs to take a hard look at this trend.
I will beat this dead horse again, but enough for now…let’s enjoy the International Sound & Sight Exhibition.
International Sound & Sight: Eighteen 77 Pte Ltd
Of all the exhibitors which I handed my business cards to, requesting information for show coverage purposes, only one person actually responded to my request and that is Yvonne Ng, a young and enthusiastic sales rep at Eighteen 77 Pte Ltd. So I decided cover her International Sound & Sight Exhibition room first.
Yvonne is the only young woman on the floor, and likely the youngest person at the entire show. She held her own with confidence, giving concise yet intellectual answers, better than 90% of the representatives at the show. Eighteen 77, you hired a great sales rep!
For the show, Eighteen 77 displayed:
Dali Epicon 8 Speakers in Gloss Black S$30,000
Rel S510 Subwoofer in Gloss Black S$4,800/pc
Cambridge Audio Edge Preamp / Network Player NQ S$7,500
Classe Audio Delta Preamp S$17,490
Classe Delta Stereo $21,950
Beside doing the show report, I’m actually at the International Sound & Sight Exhibition shopping for a pair of speakers for my new home. DALI (which stands for Danish Audio Loudspeaker Industries) may just foot the bill. The Dali Epicon 8 put forth a natural and engaging sound which made me sit down for 15 minutes straight, carrying an organic tonality typical of Scandinavian speakers. I actually prefer the sound without the subwoofers which I thought was unnecessary, but the Rel S510 did give an extra oomph to the sound, perhaps just a tad too much to my liking. After listening to the Dalis I will be going back to their showroom for further evaluation as I liked what I heard.
Classé Audio was a direct competitor to Mark Levinson and Krell of the ’80s. All three have been bought out and have become global names with a corporate structure. I still remember the DR-6 preamp and the DR-8 Monoblocks designed by David Reich, which I owned in the late ’80s. It amazes me that the current Classé amplifier’s sound carries the same clean and transparent solid state sound of the ’80s, yet they are not as edgy or “solid state” sounding as their 1980s counterparts.
Neither Mark Levison, Krell or Classé have re-emerged with MSRPs twenty times that of the eighties. The corporations have done their homework with marketing, and the pricing of the Delta preamp and Delta Amps simply kept pace with inflation. It doesn’t mean they are less of an amp just because their price tags are not $250,000.00.
The Delta Stereo amp puts out 250W per channel in 8 ohms, and 500W in 4 ohms. Combined with matching the Delta Pre, which comes with an MM/MC phono stage, the combo delivered a flawless performance driving the Dali Epicon speakers. There is a balance in totality which is neither too hard or too soft, they are just about right, with nothing for me to nitpick. I especially liked the 0.25dB step precision volume control, with large fonts displayed on the LED screen, because I can see the numbers on my McIntosh C1000 when I’m 18 feet away.
All in all this system is a great high-end combo which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. They don’t underperform the $350k setups: these are top echelon products.
Bobby Ng of Audioline Pte Ltd had assembled a serious all-out-assault system for the International Sound & Sight Exhibition, and it had the sonic performance to back it up. The system consisted of:
Nagra all new Reference Anniversary Turntable S$280,000.00
Nagra HD Preamp S$100,000.00
Nagra Classic Phono Stage S$30,000.00
Nagra HD Amp $130,000
TAD R1 Speaker $130,000
Peak Loudspeaker, El Diablo $77,000
But don’t forget the anaconda-sized Signal Project Bi-Wire Speaker cables with an MSRP of S$42,500 per meter, and S$3,300 for an additional half meter. They won’t pass the airline security gate because they can easily be mistaken for a serious assault weapon, as the “box” attached to the cables are substantial in size and in weight.
Click here for more of Richard Mak’s coverage of the 2022 International Sound & Sight Exhibition!